Developing a sense of time, especially if you struggle with ADHD.
Almost all of us grapple with an accurate sense of time.
In fact, there is a phenomenon called Planning Fallacy. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was discovered by two psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, back in the 1970’s. Planning fallacy is, as described by Bueller, Griffin, and Ross in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:
The tendency to hold a confident belief that one’s own project will proceed as planned, even while knowing that the vast majority of similar projects have run late.
I mention this because many people feel ashamed or angry with themselves when they don’t accurately predict time. But the experience is actually universal.
Beyond planning fallacy, people with ADHD and Executive Function issues tend to have even more difficulties. Because the way their brains are put together means they have poor time perception.
I should know — both of my sons struggle with this issue. So I have spent a lot of time trying to understand and put in place tools and strategies to help them.
In the past, I wrote about how we break time or projects down into small chunks in our house. We do this to start a task, or get out the door on time. Those articles are here:
Three Steps to Tackle Time Management for People with ADHD
How to Start a Project When You Don’t Know Where to Begin
But beyond that, there are other tools. Ways that we can actually improve our perception of time. And it starts with a simple, boring tool. One that has probably been recommended to you dozens of times before. When I mention it, don’t stop reading. Because it has a power that you are taking for granted. It’s a simple timer.
In our house — we often use the timer on the microwave. My kids do homework and spend so much of their time in the kitchen. A $6 kitchen timer (you can buy them on Amazon) would be a great choice as well. Especially if you want to use it in your office or bedroom.
What’s so great about a timer?
First of all, I’m not talking about the timer on your phone. Because if your phone is anything like mine, it is already buzzing and binging all day long. Its distracting, but it almost becomes baseline white noise in the background. Its not a unique enough sound to signal that time has passed.
But the key to a timer is that it helps develop what psychologists call metacognition. Metacognition means:
Awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.
People who struggle with a sense of time can be unaware or lack understanding of the passage of time. Using a timer can kick start that process of thinking about time. It can help your brain start to understand when it’s passing. It can give you a moment to pause and actually consider how much time has passed. And that metacognition, that awareness of how you think about time, is the key to starting to develop a sense of time.
Here are three ways that you can use a timer to further develop a sense of time.
Learning what a unit of time “feels” like
One of the biggest struggles for people with Executive Function issues is that they can’t “feel” a unit of time. Taking a shower in the morning can feel like 5 minutes but actually be 20. Getting dressed can feel like 10 minutes but is actually 25. It all builds on itself, which ends up meaning that you are late.
So, do you think you take a 5 minute shower? 10 minute? How long do you think it takes you to get dressed? Start your timer. Do your task. Check the timer at the end. How long was that? Write it down and time it again tomorrow.
You don’t have to time your whole day. Pick one or two activities per day. Start to get an estimate of how much time passes, compared with how much time you expected. Build from there.
Staying on Task
Hyper-focus can be one of the great strengths of people with ADHD. This is the ability to go into deep concentration mode. If there is a topic of interest, people with ADHD can engage for hours without realizing it. This is often to the detriment of the other tasks that need to happen over the day.
So try this — when you sit down to engage in a task, set your timer for regular intervals (10 minutes, 15 minutes). You can even put it across the room.
When it goes off, take a minute to check in with yourself. Are you working on what you intended? Is it time to transition to another task? Is it time for your next appointment? Giving yourself this break in concentration can remind you to stay the course.
Working on large projects that feel overwhelming, or not interesting
Certain projects feel overwhelming. Or, they could be filled with little tiny details that don’t interest you. Who wants to waste so much time doing something so boring? So the result is avoidance.
Using a timer can be an amazing way to get the ball rolling. How long can you tolerate a task like this — a big project that is not particularly interesting but you want it done? Can you tolerate cleaning up your desk for 1 minute? For 5 minutes? You decide. Set your timer for even one minute, and start.
We do this for my younger son, whose room is always strewn with shoes and toys and books and dirty clothes. We tell him he has to clean up his room, but only for 5 minutes. If he keeps cleaning up that whole time, he gets a reward.
To be fair, we do use an Alexa for this. He gets to listen to music for 5 minutes on the Alexa, and then the timer goes off at the end of the 5 minutes. So, not a kitchen timer, but not a phone either.
Think about it the same way for yourself. You only have to do the task for a small amount of time. When the timer goes off, reward yourself. You get to engage in your favorite hyper-focus activity for a period of time. Then another interval of your large project. Maybe this time you can go for 2 minutes.
Developing a sense of time can be helpful in so many ways. It’s not easy. And people can feel a deep sense of shame when they set a timer for 15 minutes and realize how easily it all slips away. But beating yourself up about the way you are wired isn’t helpful, or necessary. Instead, focus on making small bits of progress every day. Maybe you were able to do a boring but necessary task for 5 minutes with the help of a timer. Maybe you realized that you’re taking 20 minute showers. And this morning cut it down to 10 minutes so that you were at work on time. Practicing these skills a little at a time can reap major benefits. It’s not about changing who you are. It’s about learning what you can do, and what is possible.